The NBA, like any major corporation, has mastered it’s marketing. And the audience, like any consumer, is falling for the image a corporation has put out to fool them. The players are perfectly positioned. It all centers on LeBron James‘ move to Miami. The NBA took those images of distraught Cleveland fans burning jerseys and essentially made it their mission statement. The foundation of the league’s image is that LeBron is the villain. He represents what people see as what’s wrong with modern sports, and even modern society. His talent is limitless, but his arrogant announcement and ringless fingers represent a sense of unearned entitlement. Of course, this image is unfair and over exaggerated. LeBron is certainly a polarizing figure and a frustratingly annoying player to watch, but he’s by far the best player in the league, and any 25 year old who says they haven’t made a cocky mistake is lying to you. However the league feeds into this conceived image of LeBron, giving him superstar calls that encourage flopping, but for every villain there are a handful heroes.
Once LeBron’s announcement took place, the affection for Kevin Durant multiplied exponentially. He seemed to be the anti-LeBron, and the NBA embraced that image with open arms. Smooth and skinny, Durant made impossible shots and graceful dunks with no celebration. I guess this qualified him to be the resident good guy around the NBA. The marketing train took advantage of the perception of Durant, placing him in commercials on the rafters of the Ford Center preaching about championships and dedication. Or at the scorer’s table scolding cell-phone users for playing doodle jump. Seriously? Man, that’s messed up. Or maybe he’s just looking for a pickup game, like he was during the lockout. The NBA has branded Durant as what’s right in sports, he’s dedicated, loyal and humble. There’s an authenticity to Durant’s game and demeanor that LeBron just doesn’t have. So the NBA found a gift in Kevin Durant, a player that loves the game enough to play when the NBA isn’t even around is the perfect promoting tool. He’s the dramatic foil to LeBron.
The problem with Durant, at least last year, is that he still hadn’t won anything. So the NBA was going to have to embrace a Miami championship and amplify the LeBron villain angle rather than the heroes fighting against him. Then came Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk, who’s game resembles Larry Bird-esc traditionalism, displayed one of the most clutch performances I’ve seen in sports. Tall, goofy and cognizant in the waning minutes of the game, Dirk discovered the adoration of a nation waiting to spit in the Heat’s face. Don’t think appearance isn’t relevant, audiences related to his oaffy exterior. In contrast, audiences rejected the strutting Heat, tatted up and high-flying, representing a city known for flashiness. He found ways to score when LeBron simply couldn’t, which lead to a full year of smothering coverage about LeBron’s lack of clutch gene. An undermanned team beat a heavy Miami favorite that audiences hated, even if they didn’t know the full story, and none of us know the full story.
What we do know is that LeBron made two mistakes. One was choosing Miami, which is something that is a personal decision and up to James. However the bigger mistake was the execution of “The Decision.” Over the top, obnoxious and self-promoting, LeBron’s announcement drew criticism from every angle of the media, including the enablers at ESPN. Sure, it was stupid, and it’s easy to root against LeBron, but he was in his mid 20’s and made a self-centered move that will follow him for the rest of his life. He didn’t hurt anybody or cheat. Modern athletes have done far worse and received far less criticism, but the machine is moving, and there’s no stopping it now. The NBA is going to milk LeBron’s image along with his foils for as long and as much money as they can.